The Oasis, a feature-length observational documentary filmed over two years, captures the daily chaos and drama of a very different kind of 'oasis' - the Salvation Army's Oasis Youth Refuge for Sydney's inner-city street kids, run by maverick youth worker Captain Paul Moulds.
While the film documents a very specific microcosm of one man at one refuge in Sydney, the issues it illustrates - family dysfunction, welfare dependency, chronic drug & alcohol addiction, getting entangled in 'the system' - speak globally of the symptoms of underprivileged people all around Australia and the world.
At a time when the community seems to be increasingly turning its back on youth homelessness - the rates of homeless teenagers have doubled in the last 20 years in Australia - this film will refocus attention on the struggle many of our young people are experiencing, in all its complexity.
Our inspiration to make the film was the awe-inspiring work of Captain Paul Moulds whose 'Oasis', a grimy red-brick complex in the inner-city, magnetises the most dangerous, damaged and desperate young people of the streets. These kids, some as young as 14, stand precariously on the edge of an abyss of self destruction, and the community, parents and the powers that be, should thank God Paul is there to grab them by the feet. Unflinching in his support and compassion for these kids, Paul has become a surrogate father for a wide collection of dispossessed youth.
Though a long tradition exists in documentary of turning the lens on the outcasts of the streets, our film is unique in its longitudinal, observational approach, with the shoot period stretching over two years. We wanted to substantially capture the long term journeys of these young people and hoped to be able to document some kind of positive transformation in their lives to illustrate the genuine impact of Captain Paul's work. We learnt however, that change in this world is often slow and incremental. For some, despite seemingly endless months and opportunities, progress seemed elusive.
Auspicious moments unfolded for others though, and we happily followed Owen into his first stable job and accommodation; watched Darren recover from a psychotic episode and stabilise enough to move into his own apartment; and saw Chris get off ice and reunite with his mum. As Paul had warned us, the kids were not going to miraculously settle down and enroll in medical degrees - but small victories became major sources of joy and satisfaction.
Transformations aside, as filmmakers we wanted to take this film far beyond a mere glimpse inside the underbelly or a feel-good story of street kids overcoming their traumas. Running with the kids through the parks, squats and boarding houses of the inner city, we were shocked and ashamed at the depths of squalor and deprivation young people were facing at a time of apparent prosperity in Australia. It became our passionate belief that a major breach of society's basic duty of care towards young people was being played out right under the noses of the general public in our own affluent society.
Thanks to the luxury of an unusual amount of time, the editing process was exhaustive. In terms of choosing which characters would feature in the film - from the 20 or so whose lives were followed in varying degrees of depth - it was a process of attrition. Ultimately the characters chose themselves. We put together long chronological sequences of all the footage of each character, then shrunk those down and weeded out the best scenes to represent the person's journey. The characters who were defined by simple motifs and clearly defined pursuits were those who emerged as the strongest. For example, Emma and Trent were defined by caring for their child and moving house, while Tommy struggled with alcohol and incarceration, and dreamed of boxing. It was a heartbreaking process, however, to lose certain characters, some of whom had been slated for top billing during the filming. Our extended edit schedule enabled deep scrutiny of footage, interrogation of themes and most importantly, major developments in people's stories to be captured up until lock-off.
Stylistically we all shared the same vision and had embarked on the project with a taste for 'cinema verite', a flavour which we felt would most effectively show the reality of life at a youth refuge. The general desire was to create a sense of reality unfolding without too much 'artistic' intervention, to ensure the craft of the shooting and editing was as invisible as possible. The finished piece is a mixture of observational scenes, interviews with young people and incisive comments from Paul, all of which unfolds over a chronological time period. Lives and fortunes fluctuate as each character struggles against his or her demons and the instability of poverty, past trauma and daily needs. All the while, Paul is the solid rock upon which each kid can rely in times of anguish and emergency.
Ultimately the film is a tribute to Paul's compassion and belief that no young person, no matter how addicted or damaged, should be abandoned. His eternal optimism was a source of constant inspiration and to witness the powerful impact it had on other people's lives kept us buoyant, even through the most hopeless and frustrating times.
We believe this film, backed up by an independent National Youth Commission enquiry into youth homelessness, a national ABC broadcast, panel discussion and distribution to schools, has the power to catalyse significant social change as well as give a confronting and moving glimpse into a completely different side of the 'Lucky Country'.